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29 New Orleans Public Schools Unfit For Students After Ida; Some Move Classes Online

Aubri Juhasz
An industrial-sized dehumidifier works to dry out the interior of Frederick A. Douglass High School, in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Sept. 9, 2021.

Only a handful of New Orleans Public Schools reopened Wednesday after Hurricane Ida caused greater damage to the city’s campuses than was originally assessed. More than 30% of buildings are considered unfit for students and are undergoing repairs.

Of the district’s 88 facilities, the number requiring post storm “environmental cleanup” now stands at 29, up from 22 following the district’s initial evaluation.

“This work may impact schools’ reopening schedules and may lead to some schools taking longer to open or restricting parts of their buildings while the cleanup progresses,” the district’s spokesperson Taslin Alfonzo said in an email.

She said the hurricane had an impact on all schools ranging from “minor to moderate” and that some buildings sustained damage due to the prolonged power outages following the storm that allowed heat and humidity to harm the inside of some facilities.

Out of the 29 schools, 22 are scheduled for environmental testing this week to make sure they are free of mold and other biohazards. Lab results take roughly three days to process, which is also a factor in a school’s reopening schedule, according to Alfonzo.

NOLA Public School students were set to return to the classroom as early as Wednesday, though some of the district’s alternative schools reopened Monday. All schools are expected to resume classes no later than Sept. 22.

At least six of the 29 schools are pivoting to online learning temporarily due to building damages, according to messages shared by school leaders with families and obtained by New Orleans Public Radio. Alfonzo said charter operators “have the prerogative to offer other learning options that best serve their students through these temporary challenges caused by Hurricane Ida.”

The district originally said that just one school, Frederick A. Douglass High School, would be unable to resume classes onsite due to the level of building damage, which includes several broken windows and extensive water damage.

The school’s charter operator, KIPP New Orleans, said classes will be moved online until the campus is cleared for in-person instruction. Virtual instruction begins Thursday and is expected to last at least through the end of next week. KIPP’s seven other schools are set to resume classes in-person.

In a letter to families, Arise Academy Principal Nichole Jones said the school, which is located across the street from Douglass and serves roughly 400 students, sustained damage to its infrastructure and will need to be repaired. After that happens, the building will undergo an environmental assessment to ensure it is free of mold and an architectural assessment to ensure it is safe for occupancy, she said.

“It is for this reason that a definitive date for students and staff to return to in-person instruction is unknown at this time,” Jones said. “However, in order to minimize instructional loss to the greatest extent possible and reconnect with students to provide much needed social-emotional learning support, we will begin to offer virtual instruction and support services for all grades beginning on Monday, Sept. 20.”

ReNEW Schaumburg Elementary in New Orleans East suffered water damage and is not cleared for in-person instruction, according to a letter sent to families earlier this week. The schools more than 700 students are set to resume classes virtually on Monday,

“We recognize that this is a disappointing development, but as we all know well, the aftermath of a major hurricane requires patience and understanding,” the letter said. “Rest assured, this virtual session will be short, and we will return to in-person learning as soon as the building is ready.”

The letter said school leaders expect online learning to “only last a couple of weeks.”

Other schools that have announced plans to temporarily pivot to online learning due to building damage and other post-storm operational challenges include Bricolage Academy, Benjamin Franklin High School and Lusher Charter School’s upper-grade campus.

While families had the option to learn online last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, schools have been required to serve students in-person since they started the 2021-22 school year in early August.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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